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Health district staff have worked long hours as the pandemic changed rapidly. Here's what their lives were like.

Patrick McCormack thinks that when he and his Uncas Health District staff look back on the coronavirus pandemic, they're going to keep talking about phases.

First, there was talking to people who had traveled from hot spots, and figuring out what forms to use and how to handle language barriers. Then, Uncas received boxes and boxes of personal protective equipment to distribute. Then it ramped up contact tracing, then started hearing a vaccine was on the way, then provided guidance to schools on reopening plans.

All the while, McCormack was thinking, "What happens if somebody in my office gets sick? What happens if someone in my office dies? What happens if someone in the family gets sick?"

As of Friday, 44 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Connecticut, down from a peak of more than 1,900 last April and lower than this time last year, and about 62% of the state's population is fully vaccinated. And McCormack was able to take a week off recently.

"The stability that we have right now should be recognized," he said, citing activities people are enjoying like farmers markets, Rock the Dodd concerts and youth sports. He said he wants to have a glass-half-full perspective but asks people to be cautious and aware.

McCormack and four other Uncas Health District staff members sat down with The Day for two hours on Thursday to reflect on their lives and their work since last March.

"We had always thought a pandemic would be quite different," McCormack said. "H1N1 made us think we knew what a pandemic looked like, and this one didn't look like H1N1."

He got a lot of calls that began with statements like, "I'm hearing that..." and "Is it true that..." He got questions about whether an employer could ask where an employee went for the weekend, and what employers are considered essential and nonessential, and whether kids could touch playground equipment.

"There were times we provided information that probably wasn't, in hindsight, 100% accurate, but it was the best information we had at the time," McCormack said. He said in some cases, the judgment calls were "probably overly conservative" but feels it's better to be safe than sorry.

"For a while, it was like 12-hour days, seven days a week, especially with the contact tracing," public health nurse Susan Dubb said. And it could be very emotional.

She remembers a woman she called every day to check on, since the woman was quarantining alone while her husband was in the hospital with COVID-19. One day, Dubb called the woman 45 minutes after the hospital called to say her husband had died.

"I just wanted to drive to her house and give her a hug and say, 'We're going to get you through this,' but all of this had to be done over the phone," Dubb said.

"I was the listening ear on the other end for someone who didn't have anyone else to talk to," public health nurse Jennifer Ceccarelli said. She started in October along with Gail Kulesza; both had previously been school nurses. Ceccarelli said a struggle during the pandemic was that "I was taking care of everybody else, but not my family or myself."

'It's a blur. It was so exhausting'

The pandemic put other public health activities on the back burner. Dubb said she had a hepatitis C grant that had to be paused, though she just met with the grantor this past Monday.

At Ledge Light Health District, director Steve Mansfield said the strategic plan was on the agenda but had to be tabled, as focusing on that would have been "like installing smoke detectors in the middle of an inferno." Ledge Light also backed off from Breathe Well, an asthma program in partnership with Lawrence + Memorial Hospital.

But it seemed like the pandemic also created more burners and health district staff had more things cooking.

"As public health practitioners, we have set roles and responsibilities. A lot of them are driven by statute; some of them are driven by grant deliverables," Mansfield said. There was still soil to be tested and restaurants to inspect, kids still got lead poisoning, and Ledge Light staff still had administrative responsibilities.

"I think what's so unique about public health is most people don't have a clue what we do," said Kris Magnussen, supervisor of communicable disease prevention and a public health nurse. She added, "As long as we're doing our job, they don't hear about us. The water is clean, the beaches are OK to go swimming."

Mansfield said the public probably also didn't know that Ledge Light was prepared for a pandemic, with a mass dispensing plan in place. Mansfield, Magnussen, Deputy Director Jennifer Muggeo and public health nurse Mary Day sat down with The Day for an hour on Wednesday.

"My life was 99% COVID" until things slowed down the past three or four months, Day said. She joined Ledge Light at the beginning of March 2020, and is still learning about day-to-day responsibilities for nonpandemic functions.

"The first year, it's a blur. It was so exhausting," Magnussen said. "So often we were reacting to situations that all of the sudden were sort of thrust at us, so we were developing protocols, we were developing fact sheets, we were developing procedures for municipalities, because they weren't forthcoming elsewhere."

Mansfield said the department was sometimes finding out about changes from Gov. Ned Lamont's news conferences, at the same time as the media and the public.

Especially in the beginning, staff members were getting calls at 3 a.m. — from first selectmen and mayors, the Department of Public Health, school administrators.

Mansfield said it's hard to get back to normal, that "if I go away for a weekend, I feel like I'm being delinquent."

Magnussen said with just she and her husband at home — a husband who did the cooking and shopping, and didn't complain when she was on the phone all the time — she didn't know how Muggeo has managed with three kids.

"I think at home it was a lot like it was here: deciding quickly and firmly what were the things that were most important, and in our house, that was the kids' emotional well-being," Muggeo said.

Staff members leaned on one another and used humor to get through, and they got a lot of support from their community. Their eyes lit up when they recalled a woman bringing chocolate chip cookies to two vaccine clinics in North Stonington, and Mansfield said he has dozens of handwritten notecards, primarily from seniors — which far outweighed the occasional angry criticisms.

Looking back, Mansfield said he would have been more of an advocate for getting public health at the table earlier, when he saw the Department of Economic and Community Development as the driving force at the state level and public health as underrepresented. But he said that got better.

Looking forward, he hopes for a continued focus on the importance of public health. He said about a recent increase in per-capita funding, "The people who are deciding how to spend money are recognizing that public health is underfunded, so we hope this is the tip of an iceberg."

e.moser@theday.com

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